Iraqi officers weigh rejoining Army

The government hopes to stem the insurgency by luring back officers fired in 2003.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With military bearing and the signature thick mustaches of Iraqi officers, Sunni men are considering the government's fresh offer to rejoin the ranks.

"I can't bloody my hands in this," says a former Iraqi Army major, who asked not to be named. "The occupation forces pay me to kill my people? That's not possible."

Across town, a former Sunni general sees the offer not as a sellout, but a way out. "It's a very good start to improve the security situation," says Abu Nawar, who asked to go by his nickname. "This chaos and mayhem in Iraq started because of [the] decision to dissolve the Army."

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Even as an insurgency rages, their uniforms have hung idly at home since US officials disbanded the Army - inadvertently fueling the rebellion - in May 2003. Officers' pockets are empty. Tables are bare. And emotions are mixed.

The offer is confronting Sunni officers with a chicken-or-egg dilemma: Do they rejoin, and make the Army strong enough so US forces will leave? Or do they wait until the occupation is over, so they are untainted by it?

"The Iraqi people love Americans," says the major, speaking in English. "[But] we had a bad experience. [President] Bush tells all about the 'liberation' of Iraq, but there is another black side; many thousands of people have been killed in this war."

"Proof" of how Iraqi forces are being misused, the major charges, is in the results of the current US-Iraqi offensive in the western town of Husaybah. Over the weekend, a joint force of 2,500 Americans and 1,000 Iraqis launched one of the largest of some 10 offensives in recent months along the Euphrates River, to root out militant enclaves near the Syria border.

The Iraqi Red Crescent Society reported dozens dead; the Sunni major alleges that "many hundreds of women and children." In a statement Monday, US marines said they had "no reports of civilian casualties," and that insurgents had attacked from four mosques and a school.

The insurgency and consequent fighting. which has claimed more than 2,000 American and at least 25,000 Iraqi lives, is shaping decisions by former officers.

Like some 400,000 of their comrades, these three officers - interviewed separately across Baghdad - were dismissed 2 1/2 years ago when the US viceroy of occupied Iraq, Paul Bremer, dissolved the Army.

Deemed one of the biggest mistakes in the postwar era, that move is credited with helping turn a nascent resistance into a bloody insurgency by feeding it with legions of jobless and angry men who had explosives and military expertise.

The new effort to reverse that decision, open to junior officers with rank major and below, is meant to undermine the insurgency. The targets are professional Sunnis who held key positions in the Hussein era.

Today's force is heavily dominated by the majority Shiites, many of whom are loyalists of Shiite Islamic parties. As the new Army works with American forces to quell the Sunni-led insurgency, Sunnis often complain that their villages and towns bear the brunt of offensives.

Still, the general, who is active in the politics of former officers, says the response has been "enthusiastic," and that "hundreds" of officers have come to him, asking him where to sign up.

"The idea, when those guys rejoin, is not to serve the Americans, but to serve their country," says the general, who says he will return if the invitation is extended to the highest ranks. "And they will fulfill the desire of Iraqis to make a strong Army, so the Americans can leave. That's why we encourage them, because the violence is directly related to the level of occupation."

Not everyone is convinced of the utility of joining the Army. "The resistance are not mercenaries - they won't stop until the Americans leave," says K. Thamer, a former Air Force captain and helicopter pilot who says the "honorable" resistance should be differentiated from Islamic terrorists who target civilians. "The offer from the government will not lower the insurgency, but is propaganda for the next election."

The violent reaction to disbanding the Army was predictable, says Captain Thamer. He remembers an officer interviewed on TV who vowed: "If they do not give me back my job, each day I will kill an American."

Before the war, Thamer's unit was ordered to fly its 20 helicopters to Fallujah, dismantle them, and truck them to Samarra, north of Baghdad, to hide them. He was given a machine gun.

"I'm a pilot ... of course I became crazy!" says Thamer. But his anger was tempered by his happiness - at first.

"At the moment the regime fell, we had a vision of the future of Iraq, for a better Iraq," says Thamer, who hoped that a new air force would be equipped with US-made combat helicopters, not dysfunctional Soviet-era relics. Instead, he was fired.

"Day after day, when the next day was worse than before, my dream vanished," says Thamer, who won't rejoin. "Now I want to leave the country and go into aviation."

For those who stay, the dilemma remains. After World War I, the general says, the British intervened little. But the US has acted differently. "This is advice to American leaders - let the whole Army return, with the exception of criminals. Then Iraq will be settled," says the general.

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